August 24, 2019
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Defense in murder trial points to grandfather as suspect in 4-year-old’s death

Beth Brogan | BDN
Beth Brogan | BDN
Shawna L. Gatto enters a Kennebec County courtroom on Monday, the first day of her murder trial. Gatto is accused in the killing of 4-year-old Kendall Chick.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Defense attorneys for Shawna Gatto on Friday aggressively questioned Kendall Chick’s grandfather about his actions during the time the 4-year-old lived with them and suggested he was just as likely as Gatto to have killed her.

Gatto, 44, is charged with depraved indifference murder and is on trial at the Capitol Judicial Center in Augusta. She is accused of killing Chick on Dec. 8, 2017, at the Wiscasset home the two shared with Stephen Hood, Chick’s grandfather and Gatto’s fiance. Chick had been removed from her mother’s custody by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and placed with Gatto and Hood.

On Wednesday, Hood testified for the prosecution, saying he had not seen the fatal injuries to Chick occur but that Gatto had assured him the girl had fallen or otherwise injured herself. The day before, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state’s medical examiner, testified that the 4-year-old died from blunt force trauma to her head, a “catastrophic” traumatic injury to her abdomen and chronic “child abuse syndrome.”

On Friday, Hood listened as defense attorney Philip Cohen read a series of text messages Hood had sent Gatto in the months before Chick’s death. “You and I have no life,” he wrote in one. “The life we have sucks.”

“I don’t know what to do,” he wrote in another. “Get rid of her? How? But then we’d have to carry the guilt.”

Cohen said Hood and Gatto planned to become “empty nesters” and were going to “take it easy,” but suddenly found themselves raising three small children.

Hood, who declined the offer an attorney during his testimony, told the court that he had only ever spanked the children once, and on Friday reiterated, “One slap on the ass. That was all it took to get their attention.”

But when Cohen asked, “Was it with a belt?” Hood said, “There was one time.”

Hood acknowledged that he has a criminal record, including four convictions for misdemeanor assault dating from 1987 to 2002, as well as other crimes.

Hood told Cohen that in 13 years with Gatto, he had never seen her abuse children. He also said he may have “babysat” during the days immediately before Chick’s death, adding, “I’m sure there was a time I was alone with my granddaughter.” He acknowledged that he became frustrated during evenings when he was home alone with the children.

“You’re testifying now that even though you were brought up with corporal punishment, even though this was not the life you wanted, even though you were getting aggravated late at night, your testimony is you never got physical with those children, never got physical with Kendall,” Cohen asked. “You were alone with her often and had the opportunity. No one else was there to see it or hear it if you did.”

But Hood denied he caused the child’s injuries.

Cohen questioned Hood’s statement that he heard Chick’s voice as he walked out the door the day of her death and that when he got home from work, Gatto’s grandson was playing a game on a laptop.

“[He] didn’t seem upset, seemed normal? He certainly didn’t seem like he’d seen anything traumatic?” Cohen asked. And Gatto “certainly didn’t seem like she had a 4-year-old in the other room that had passed earlier in the day? She was acting normal?”

But Assistant Attorney General John Alsop, one of two prosecutors in the case, then reminded Hood that he described the three children greeting him when he returned in the afternoon, and that he had told Maine State Police Detective Joshua Birmingham that Gatto “seemed a little perturbed.”

“That was normal,” Hood said.

Explaining his text message, Hood told Alsop that if Chick needed special care — Gatto told detectives that Chick was “a drug baby” and had behavioral problems — he wasn’t sure he could take care of her.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I was trying to help [Gatto] out. Of course I didn’t want to let my granddaughter go to foster care, but if she did have special needs that Shawna didn’t want to deal with, I couldn’t take care of Kendall myself. But I would never do it.”

Hood said DHHS had only checked on Chick once in the more than three years she was in the couple’s custody.

Hood said the two agreed that they couldn’t seek medical treatment for her — that because of her bruises, “it would be awfully uncomfortable.”

However, he said Chick was examined by physicians who were treating both Hood and Gatto with Suboxone for opioid addiction.

But both the defense and the prosecution later stipulated that there was no record of any medical examination of Chick by either of the physicians Hood mentioned.

During the trial, which began Monday, the defense has introduced evidence including bloody pajamas and towels, nearly 50 photographs of Chick’s bruise-covered corpse, and photographs of the home’s bathtub and bunk bed that Luminol showed to be blood-stained.

Later on Friday, Alsop played a second recorded interview with Birmingham and Gatto from the days immediately following Chick’s death, in which she continued to describe Chick as “very accident-prone” and said she “would fall all the time.” She said the child “hardly ever cried” to the point that she “wondered a few times if she could feel pain because she never cried.”

“She has been like one big ball of trauma, not bad trauma, don’t quote me on — that’s — she would hit her head, like they were playing in her room, they were jumping off the bed, and that’s why we had that crib mattress, too, because a lot of times they would jump off that.”

“I know it sounds sad, but you kind of get used to the falling all the time,” Gatto said.

She described a number of injuries Chick suffered, including falling “head-first” off the top bunk onto the floor and discovering her “in the toy bin, her feet sticking up out of the toy bin.”

When Birmingham began to question Gatto about the impact of stress on her life, she said life was hectic, “But I’m also not at the point that I’m going to beat the crap out of one of my grandkids.”

She described Chick as “the quiet one that sat, watched TV and you really didn’t have to get after her that much.”

Told by Birmingham that investigators had determined that “a lot of the marks on Kendall were inflicted … meaning someone caused them,” Gatto said, “No. Nobody caused them.”

The prosecution rested Friday afternoon, and defense attorneys are expected to present their complete caseMonday, Stokes said.

If convicted of murder, Gatto could face 25 years to life in prison. She could also be found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

 



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